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After Special Election Upsets, GOP Takes Nothing For Granted In Arizona Race

In a congressional district that is considered as red as the sun is bright, Democrats see a tiny opening in an upcoming special election in Arizona after a surprising victory in a similar race last month in Pennsylvania.

Voters in Arizona's 8th Congressional District, northwest of Phoenix, are choosing a replacement for Trent Franks, who resigned abruptly last year amid sexual harassment allegations.

Last weekend, Democrat Hiral Tipirneni had a reminder for the dozens of volunteers gathered at Wigwam Creek Middle School in Litchfield Park, Ariz.

"After what we learned in Pennsylvania, every vote counts. We know this. Every vote," she told the crowd. "Nobody can afford to sit it out."

While Republicans are taking nothing for granted, Tipirneni sees a path to victory.

"Talk about the issues," she said. "We're not talking about the ideology. It's not a D versus R thing. It's a, 'Hey I have a health care plan that's gonna get us to a place where every American [has] a quality, affordable health care. My opponent does not.' "

Tipirneni, a physician, had planned on challenging Franks in this Fall's midterms. After Franks resigned in December, a slew of Republicans ran to replace him in a special primary election. A well-known state lawmaker won: Debbie Lesko.

"This is a special election," Lesko said of the national attention the race is getting. "We Republicans need to prove to the Democrats that they do not have a chance of winning in this solid Republican district."

Debbie Lesko (left) is a former state lawmaker who resigned her seat to run in the special primary election to replace Trent Franks in Congress. The district is Arizona's 8th, northwest of Phoenix.
Bret Jaspers / KJZZ
Debbie Lesko (left) is a former state lawmaker who resigned her seat to run in the special primary election to replace Trent Franks in Congress. The district is Arizona's 8th, northwest of Phoenix.

How solid is it? The last time this suburban area sent a Democrat to Congress was 1980. That representative, Bob Stump, then switched parties and became a Republican. As of Thursday, early voting numbers show the number of registered Republicans who have sent in their ballots outnumber registered Democrats by over 31,000.

Sitting on her golf cart in a strip mall parking lot, Republican Peggy Harmon said she already voted for Lesko. "Because she's Republican. We don't need no more Democrats. So I'll vote for all Republicans now," she said.

Still, national GOP groups are spending significantly on the race. The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have together put in over $900,000 for things like TV ads and door-to-door canvassers. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., headlined a fundraiser for Lesko on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Alex Conant, a Republican strategist with Firehouse Strategies, argued the money is an insurance policy.

"I think the costs for Republicans, if they were to somehow neglect the race and somehow lose, it would be a big problem," he said. "So I think that's part of why you're seeing the party make this modest investment."

In contrast, Democratic groups have spent very little, even as Tipirneni's campaign has raised more than Lesko's. To win, they'll need to convince voters like John Eckardt. He usually votes Republican but is nervous that the GOP might make changes to Medicare and Social Security.

"This fooling with Medicare and Social Security is a bad thing," he said. "Because people have worked for it and paid into it for all the years that they worked. They should get it."

Lesko said she'd never vote to cut those programs for current retirees, but has supported the idea of changes for future beneficiaries.

There's one wild card that makes GOP activist Lezlee Alexander nervous: "You never know what's coming out of D.C. and how it's gonna affect everybody."

Asked if she was referring to something President Trump might do or say, she said, "Yeah, exactly."

Tuesday's result could end Republicans' jitters — for now. Whichever candidate wins, of course, will have to run again this Fall.

Copyright 2018 KJZZ

Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.